Those who work with octopuses report seeing things that, according to the way we’ve learned the world normally works, should not be happening.
Such was the day Alexa Warburton found herself chasing a fist-size octopus as it ran across the floor.
Yes, ran. “You’d chase them under the tank, back and forth, like you were chasing a cat,” she said. “It’s so weird!”
Alexa was a pre-veterinary student at Middlebury College’s newly created octopus lab in Vermont. It seemed to her that some of the octopuses were purposely, and sometimes elaborately, uncooperative. When a student would try to scoop an animal from its tank with a net and transfer it to a bucket to run a T-maze, for example, the octopus might hide, squeeze into a corner, or hold fast to some object and refuse to let go. Some would allow themselves to be captured, only to use the net as a trampoline. They’d leap off the mesh like acrobats and dive to the floor—and then run for it.
Alexa described the experience of working with these small invertebrates as “surreal.” At the little lab, which was located in a former janitorial closet, she and the other students worked with two different species: the tiny Caribbean dwarf octopus, and the larger California two-spot, which can reach a mantle length of seven inches and have arms up to 23 inches long. “They were so strong,” she said. “This animal is so small, it fits in my hand—and yet it’s as strong as I am!”
The lab’s 400-gallon tank had a weighted lid, and was divided into separate compartments for each animal. But the octopuses would escape. They would push out from under the lid and crawl out, and sometimes die; they would dig beneath the dividers, which the students had hammered in, to get in another octopus’s compartment, and they’d eat each other. Or they’d mate, which was just as lethal for the students’ experiments. After mating, females lay eggs, hole up, and refuse to run mazes, and then when their eggs hatch they die; the males die soon after mating.
Even more impressive than the octopuses’ physical strength was the force of their will, the sheer strength of each individual personality. The students were supposed to refer to their animals by numbers in their research papers, but they ended up calling them by name: Jet Stream, Martha, Gertrude, Henry, Bob. Some were so friendly, Alexa said, “they would lift their arms out of the water like a dog jumps up to greet you”—or like a child who wants to be lifted up and hugged. One named Kermit liked Alexa to pet him, and seemed to snuggle into the caress “by raising his shoulders—even though he didn’t have shoulders.”
Others were irascible. One of the dwarf Caribbeans was such a problem the students called her the Bitch. “Catching her for the maze always took twenty minutes,” Alexa said. This octopus would invariably grip onto something and not let go.
And then there was Wendy. Alexa used her as part of her thesis presentation. It was a formal event that was videotaped, for which Alexa wore a nice suit. As soon as the cameras started rolling, Wendy drenched the student with salt water. Then the octopus scurried to the bottom of the tank, hid in the sand, and refused to come out. Alexa is convinced the whole debacle occurred because the octopus realized in advance what was going to happen and resolved to prevent it.
“Wendy,” she said, “just didn’t feel like being caught in the net.”
Data from Alexa’s experiments showed the California two-spots were quick learners. But Alexa learned far more than a refereed journal could publish. “They’re so curious,” she told me. “They want to know about everything around them. An invertebrate! This supposedly simple, simple animal!
“We don’t understand them,” she continued. “Try to make a maze that will show how this creature thinks. We don’t even understand them enough to test them. Maybe mazes aren’t the way to study them. Science can only say so much. I know they watched me. They followed me. But proving that intelligence is so difficult. There’s nothing as peculiar as an octopus.”